How to do B2B thought leadership research

How to do B2B thought leadership research

Why B2B thought leadership matters

What makes a company a thought leader?

Best practices when doing B2B thought leadership research

Why B2B thought leadership matters

B2B marketing has always been better suited to engagement over broadcast. Personal relationships and being part of the buyer’s eco-system are usually critical. As part of this, there’s an expectation that you’ll have something valuable to say; an especially pertinent experience, new facts or unique insights to share. Those consistently doing so and coupling it with solid advice or lateral thinking become known as thought leaders.

There are several benefits to being a thought leader:

  • It builds trust. By demonstrating that you know the market, and providing valuable information without asking for anything in return, you can build trust with your target audience
  • It sets you apart. Today’s marketing communications environment is noisier than ever. Offering your target market something of genuine benefit gives them a reason to sit up and listen. Do it consistently well, and ultimately, the tables will turn. Rather than slogging away trying to get the attention of potential buyers, they’ll start to seek you out for your opinion proactively
  • It’s a showcase. Demonstrating genuine, unparalleled expertise is especially critical in any sector where the product is, well, expertise. In these circumstances, good thought leadership gives potential buyers confidence that the quality of service received will live up to the promise. You don’t just raise awareness of the brand; you also improve its reputation
  • It’s a conversation starter. Time-pressured buyers have become much more discerning in the engagements they have. Why should they spend valuable time listening to your sales pitch? After all, to them, it probably sounds just like the dozens they receive every week. Think how differently the conversation would start if you could share something of value. Not “I want to tell you about me…” but “I’d like to share something that could help you…” Not only that, it enables you to start conversations with industry leaders and peers who you might not otherwise have been able to engage
  • It’s a conversation changer. A content-based marketing strategy means that you’re sharing, not selling, and you’re showing empathy, understanding, and a desire to build mutually beneficial partnerships. These are all traits valued highly by buyers
  • It’s social media ‘food’ and SEO ‘link bait.’ Social media channels, especially blogs and Twitter, have opened up new opportunities to connect but require a constant stream of quality content. Thought leadership content gives you fuel for social media activity and helps form relationships early in the buying cycle. It also encourages linking to your website and thus benefits SEO

What makes a company a thought leader?

Unsurprisingly, many aspire to the accolade of ‘thought leader.’ But only a handful truly deserves the label. What’s their secret?

Typically, thought leaders produce content that meets the following criteria:

  • Resonant. Content needs to connect with the audience it is targeted at. Typically, your prospective buyers. These individuals have their own pressures, priorities, interests, and challenges. They want content that shows you understand them and can solve their problems
  • Unique. A lot of content is published every day. If you’re posting something that attempts to connect with your audience, the chances are that someone else has already published something similar. That doesn’t mean you should avoid the topic altogether. But it does mean you should avoid publishing content that just duplicates existing work; you need to find a unique viewpoint that challenges the status quo and educates the reader
  • Strategy-led. The best thought leadership is built on a unifying theme. This theme gives focus, establishes you as an authority in the subject area, and ensures the marketing of each subsequent piece benefits from investment in the last. The theme should draw on and reinforce your overall strategy and positioning
  • Robust. The temptation is to leap in and publish a paper detailing ‘our view on…’. But readers demand more. They expect real substance. If you’re going to push a specific viewpoint to influence change, your perspective should be built on solid
  • foundations (e.g., survey data or other facts).

  • Impartial. Readers will only trust you if your content is not seen as self-serving. You must be careful not to turn the outputs into an explicit sales pitch that an intelligent audience will see straight through. It can also be valuable to get industry experts who your company does not employ to contribute so that your company is not the only voice. For example, you could ask an industry analyst to provide some commentary about the findings
  • Helpful. The best thought leadership goes the extra mile in delivery. Each piece contains not only the core insights but other content which gives flavor and facilitates action (e.g., case studies, best practice guides)
  • Visible. To become known as the ‘go-to place’ on a subject, you need to give people somewhere to go. Thought leaders often have a separate brand for their thought leadership program and a dedicated micro-site for their content
  • Re-used. You’ve invested a lot of effort in producing useful content. To ensure as high a return as possible, it needs to be packaged in a way that appeals to diverse consumption preferences. Publish reports, create a video, produce infographics, develop sales tool-kits, run seminars.

Marketing research is critical in meeting these criteria and delivering high-quality thought leadership:

  • The best way to learn more about prospective readers’ priorities and challenges is to speak to them. Research interviews can help to identify content topics that will particularly resonate. Even if you cannot talk to the target audience, secondary research can be used to determine which topics would be valuable
  • To develop a unique perspective, you need to use online desk research what information is already on the market
  • For content to be robust, it needs to be underpinned by data and facts. Marketing research is a great way to surface these facts. For example, a survey of the target audience can generate exclusive data and statistics. Reports with survey data tend to more likely to gain media coverage. They also tend to have more longevity, as interesting findings are cited repeatedly by others in the industry

Best practices when doing B2B thought leadership research

#1. Start by defining your audience and goals.

thought leadership best practices

As is the case with any content creation, you need to start by establishing the content’s goals (e.g., raise awareness, boost web traffic, better associate yourselves with a key brand value). These goals will impact many of the decisions you make throughout the project.

For example, let’s say your goal is to boost web traffic. You should set a specific KPI – e.g., the number of visitors to the content landing page – and then make sure the final content follows SEO best practices to ensure it is visible on search engines.

You will also need to establish the content’s target audience. After all, if you have a good sense of who will be reading or consuming the content, it is more likely to resonate with them.

Consider creating personas that outline readers’ needs, priorities, pain points, and interests. Some personas may have completely different interests; in that instance, it may be worth considering targeting a sub-set of the target audience. It’s better to have a piece of content that resonates with one or two personas than a piece of content that doesn’t resonate with anyone.

#2. Think about the story you want to tell.

Once you’ve decided what you’re trying to achieve and who you’re targeting, you need to establish what you’re going to say.

The starting point is to determine what interests the target audience. That requires an understanding of their priorities, needs, pain points, and interests.

The ideal method to build that understanding is to speak to the target audience. For example, you could conduct short interviews with friendly clients to ask them about their pain points and explore the content topics that would most interest them.

However, the ideal is not always possible. All is not lost. You can still use a variety of B2B secondary research sources to explore the target audience’s mindset, including:

  • Reviewing posts on B2B social media
  • Reading comments on relevant online communities (e.g., industry associations)
  • Visiting review sites or Q&A sites like Quora
  • Using content marketing tools such as BuzzSumo to explore what the target audience seems to read and share
  • Using search tools such as Ahrefs to explore what phrases people search for online (and therefore which questions the target audience is trying to answer)

The advantage of using these secondary sources is that you might find some posts or quotes that you can re-use in your content. For example, there may be a quote on a review site that perfectly encapsulates the broader point you’re trying to make.

A topic might be relevant to your target audience, but that doesn’t mean you should focus on it. Some topics are more appropriate than others.

You should consider your existing business strategy, value proposition, and brand positioning to ensure that the proposed topics fit:

  • Some of the topics may be incompatible with your overall strategy. For example, if you are a logistics company that is trying to push its customers towards digital, self-service solutions, content about the importance of relationships is going to be inconsistent with your strategy
  • Your organization may be more credible in some areas than others. For example, if you’re a B2B martech company, the target audience will expect you to be a marketing expert. But while marketing-related content may be well-received, a piece of content on the future world of work may not

Once you have removed subject areas that aren’t relevant to your business, you should also review the content that other organizations have already published.

Take each of the subject areas that are still being considered and identify competitors for similar mind space. Remember, these are competitors for share of mind, not necessarily direct competitors. For example, a trade body could be a ‘competitor.’

Then, audit everything already published, map out the angles taken and identify areas of white space. That will ensure the thought leadership you produce is not only in demand but unique.

At the end of this process, you should identify a unifying theme/message for your content.

You will then need to map out potential headlines that you would like to create. These headlines can be helpful when designing research questions and deciding who needs to be surveyed or interviewed.

However, you cannot become too attached to the headlines. If the data doesn’t end up supporting them, you shouldn’t publish the headline. Many organizations manipulate their data to support a pre-agreed narrative, but all this does is undermine the credibility of the content.

#3. Gather hard data through a variety of methodologies.

Your target audience is time-poor and is probably inundated with content. They are far more likely to consider consuming your content if your arguments are based on hard data.

This data can be gathered in a variety of ways:

Each has its benefits and drawbacks, and the ideal piece of content leverages all three techniques.

Many organizations have to conduct only one or two of these techniques at once, and in those situations, quantitative surveys are often preferred. There are a few reasons for this:

  • It’s more robust – readers are more likely to trust findings that are based on a large number of responses
  • Findings based on quantitative research are more likely to get media coverage – like readers, journalists like content that has a large number of responses
  • It allows you to create content that has particular value for decision-makers. For example, you can create a tool that helps decision-makers benchmark their performance against similar organizations

However, thought leadership surveys are hard to do well. When designing them, it is essential to follow B2B quantitative survey best practices:

  • Keep the survey short – don’t try to include too many areas of focus
  • Include open-ended questions. Quantitative data grabs headlines, but it doesn’t always explain why something happens. Open-ended questions allow you to obtain quotes that can bring the data to life and ‘explain the why’
  • Avoid leading questions. Regularly check your question wording to ensure that you are not deliberately or accidentally leading respondents to a particular answer
  • Remove ‘double-barrelled’ questions. Bad surveys often have questions that ask participants to feedback on multiple things with one response. Questions should ask participants to give their response about one subject so that it’s clear what their answer relates to
  • Include ‘don’t know’ options where relevant. We assume that B2B decision-makers know everything about their business. But they don’t always. For example, it’s realistic for a Purchasing Director not to know the exact number of employees in their organization. If there is not a ‘don’t know’ option, they must either select an option that isn’t true or drop out of the survey
  • Don’t ask for too much personal information. B2B decision-makers are understandably wary about sharing confidential information about their business. Even if you can reassure them that the survey is legitimate, there is a limit to what they are happy to share. So if you ask for too much confidential information, they will drop out
  • Finally, be clear about you will use their information and ask for permission to use their contact information or responses for anything other than just research analysis. Even if you’re only using their data to communicate about a prize draw, you need their approval

While quantitative research has many benefits, qualitative research can help elevate thought leadership by providing quotes and anecdotes that can bring the results to life. It also enables you to identify in-depth insights that are not possible through quantitative surveys.

Finally, secondary research is a way to gather additional data for free. Publicly available information can provide further context to the findings.

#4. Find the story.

Once you’ve collected the data, you need to make sense of it and create a story you can use in the final report.

This process should be relatively easy given the time you spent in step 2 to define a theme and possible headlines. You should start the analysis process by determining whether your data supports these headlines.

Ensure that you don’t manipulate or stretch the results to suit a narrative, as readers won’t trust that the findings are credible.

But you shouldn’t just stop there. There may be additional storylines in the data that you hadn’t anticipated. Look for results that are surprising and differ from what you expected in advance.

#5. Create multiple pieces of content built around one ‘hero.’

Once you have the story, you need to tell it in a piece of content. The starting point is to create a ‘hero’ piece of content that showcases your main findings and recommendations.

‘Hero’ content is typically in the form of a written report. These reports should:

  • Balance visuals with copy that helps to put the data into context (e.g., linking it to industry trends, using it as an opportunity to talk about your expertise)
  • Be well-written and easy to read
  • Include some details about the research methodology (e.g., number of responses, when the research took place, etc.) so that readers can be reassured about the research’s legitimacy

But you shouldn’t stop there. There’s an opportunity to leverage all your data and hard work by creating additional pieces of information. These pieces of content have a few different purposes:

  • First, they allow you to share the findings in different formats. People have different consumption preferences – for example, some people prefer to watch videos than reading reports. By sharing your results in multiple formats, you broaden your potential audience
  • Second, you can generate interactive pieces of content that better engage the target audience. For example, we recently helped Amplitude with some content that focused on Product Managers. In addition to a detailed report of the research findings, we helped them build a salary calculator that allows individuals to see if they’re over- or under-paid compared to their peers
  • Third, they allow you to share storylines or headlines that are interesting but not part of the main ‘hero’ content
  • Finally, they enable you to share different ‘cuts’ of the same story. For example, if ‘hero’ piece looks at the global results for a specific topic, follow-up reports can look at the story by a particular country or region

All of these additional pieces of content allow you to leverage your data further. For example, you can stagger the release of the content so that the findings have relevance and impact throughout the year.

#6. Publicize your work in multiple channels.

If you write a report and no-one reads it, does it make any impact? You should publicize your thought leadership in various places to ensure it appears wherever the target audience spends their time.

Aside from just publishing content on your site and distributing it via email, you can also:

  • Contribute blog posts and articles to other websites or publications (e.g., trade journals)
  • Distribute press releases to highlight some of the critical findings and increase the chances of results being picked up by the press
  • Post on social media. Social posts can be used to share content, but you can also use social media to get involved in conversations on the topics covered by the thought leadership
  • Conduct webinars, seminars, or workshops in which you provide an overview of findings and share your thoughts on how companies can learn from them (e.g., adapt their processes based on the results)
  • Speak at events or conferences to further share the findings

Read more about how Adience helps businesses with B2B thought leadership research as well as other B2B market research methods.



Why B2B thought leadership matters

There are several benefits to being a thought leader: it builds trust; it sets you apart; it’s a showcase; it’s a conversation starter; it’s a conversation changer; it’s social media ‘food’ and SEO ‘link bait.’

What makes a comapny a thought leader?

Unsurprisingly, many aspire to the accolade of ‘thought leader.’ But only a handful truly deserves the label.

Typically, thought leaders produce content that meets the following criteria: resonant; unique; strategy-led; robust; impartial; helpful; visible; re-used. Marketing research is critical in meeting these criteria and delivering high-quality thought leadership.

Best practices when doing B2B thought leadership research

When doing thought leadership research, we suggest using the following steps: start by defining your audience and goals; think about the story you want to tell; gather hard data through a variety of methodologies; find the story; create multiple pieces of content built around one ‘hero;’ publicize your work in multiple channels.

Chris Wells

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